Over-incarceration and Poverty
The era of mass incarceration, or as others call it, over-incarceration, is not solely an issue within the United States. Countries around the world are also experiencing a rise in incarceration rates. With the rise of global poverty comes the rise of imprisonment. Sadly, incarceration disproportionately affects people living in poverty. This system of retribution creates a conveyor belt of crime. When authorities arrest people living in poverty more often, it becomes more challenging for targeted individuals to provide for them and their families and secure a living income; as a result, many felons may resort to crime out of necessity. These factors contribute to the phenomenon many countries are experiencing including high rates of recidivism and the number of ex-felons that authorities re-arrest. This cycle of crime is continuing and many impoverished are behind bars; people must address the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty.

The Relationship Between Over-Incarceration and Poverty

The estimated number of prisoners worldwide was 10.35 million in 2018, but the number is most likely 11 million as there are a number of countries that have a difficult time collecting data. Eleven million may not seem like a lot compared to the over 7 billion people in the world, but that is only the number of people in prison and not the millions on probation who face difficulties surviving after prison. On top of that, a prison sentence is hardly an individual experience. When authorities arrest someone so they enter prison, it affects their family and often makes it more difficult to obtain a livable income. Men make up the majority of the prison population, and in countries where people see men as the breadwinners of the family, this puts stress on the family the men leave behind. Over-incarceration refers to not just the imprisonment of someone, but also the group of people their imprisonment affects.

Pre-Trial Detentions Across the World

Much of over-incarceration is due to the stigmatization of drug users and the incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, as well as many countries, like the U.S., using pre-trial detention. Around 30 percent of prison populations have not received a conviction. Pre-trial detention is a major reason for why criminal justice affects the impoverished more than the wealthy. A lack of legal assistance and expensive bails lead people to enter pre-trial detention.

Many countries have attempted to find alternatives to pre-trial detention. In Bolivia, the government has implemented a limit on the length of pre-trial detention. Similarly, Egypt is currently attempting to pass a bill capping pretrial sentences at six months. Colombia has put an emphasis on expediting the low-level cases, to cut down the number of prisoners who have not obtained a conviction. There are efforts around the world focusing on criminal justice reform as a way to create a more equal system.

Over-Incarceration Reforms Worldwide

 To reduce the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty, many countries have looked to focus on rehabilitation, using social integration and training. In this way, prison helps ex-felons return to normal life and find employment. Behind the U.S. and China, Brazil has the third-largest prison population with over 690,000 prisoners. Seeing the mass incarceration levels, the Association for the Protection and Assistance to Convicts (APAC), opened its first prison in 1972. The APAC looks to rehabilitate the people that enter its prisons, referring to those inside as recovering people. A system such as the one the APAC created marks a change in consciousness towards criminal justice systems around the world. Instead of punishment, rehabilitation drives the system by helping the marginalized seamlessly transition into normal life. The APAC’s prisons allow its members freedom, giving them the keys to their own cells and privileges to wash their clothes, cook their own meals and study what they please. Nineteen countries around the world have begun to implement similar prisons.

Penal Reform International’s Work With Recidivism

As Penal Reform International states, “Criminal justice policies affect nearly every aspect of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including poverty, food security, human rights, health and well-being, education, social inclusion, gender equality, employment, environmental issues, human security, access to justice, inclusive political processes, and governance and the rule of law.” Penal Reform International conducts work worldwide to help promote fair criminal justice practices. Its focus is on promoting rehabilitation and fair treatment by preventing torture and ensuring a speedy and fair trial for alleged felons. The group works with intergovernmental organizations to provide more rights to offenders and victims, as well as assist policymakers, criminal justice authorities and civil society to help de-link the relationship between over-incarceration and poverty.

Jared Hynes
Photo: Flickr